Howard Jacobson: DH Lawrence, forever misunderstood

BBC4’s dramatisation of ‘Women in Love’ passes the greatest test. Which is more than can be said for its critics

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There's nothing new in jeering at D H Lawrence. The overeducated and the undereducated have been doing it for the best part of a century now. He's easy pickings. Takes himself seriously. Writes about sex. Writes about the sacred. Writes about sex within the sacred and the sacred within sex. Writes with an urgency and fervour the English find embarrassing. Doesn't lay flattering unction to any class's class-consciousness. Doesn't write the way we ordinarily think and speak. Eschews the ideologies of the homme moyen sensuel. In other words, isn't us writ large or small.

That Women in Love is one of the greatest novels in the English language I have never doubted since I first read it half a century ago. I wouldn't have known what the competition was then, but you needn't have read every great novel to know you are reading one of the greatest.

Since then I have learned not to waste my energies trying to persuade to my view those who will not be persuaded. Between Rabelais and the agelastic (ie those who never laugh) there was a war to the death. And between Lawrence and the gelastic (ie those who never do anything else) a no less remorseless battle continues to be fought. What is fascinating is that it is usually the same people who won't laugh with Rabelais who laugh like drains at Lawrence. From which one must conclude that comedy or lack of it is not the issue but that the heightened language of art itself is the cause of their pathology.

So BBC4's current dramatisation of Women in Love (which also takes in The Rainbow) was always going to be a risky endeavour. The jeerers would be out in force on one side, and Lawrentians like me would be watching (or, on principle, not watching) on the other, expecting only the worst from the adaptation. It pleases me, then, to report that on the basis of Part One at least – I have not as yet been able to see Part Two – it is superb. I would go further. No better attempt to transfer a great novel to television – any novel, let alone one as fraught with difficulty as this – has yet been made. It transfixed me for 90 minutes as nothing I have seen on television ever has.

Though I would have preferred Rory Kinnear's Birkin to have been less of a ninny at the beginning – which is not to say I don't see the virtue of distancing him from Lawrence and puncturing his salvator mundi pretensions early – Women in Love is wonderfully acted all round, Rosamund Pike and Rachael Stirling, in particular, pulling off the all but impossible feat of making the sisters Gudrun and Ursula as gripping to watch as they are to read about. Beautiful in their different ways, now bold, now palpitatingly abashed, both deliver some near unbearably naked lines about the nature of love and desire with the conviction of women who fully understand the perilousness of sex.

Here is the greatest test – to give dramatic credence to language which is tentative and exploratory in the extreme – and they passed it. Which is more than can be said for the majority of the critics who (with the honourable exception of The Independent's Alice-Azania Jarvis) failed on every score, complaining that the dialogue wasn't realistic, that Lawrence makes too much of what we in our cool modernity take for granted, and generally parading their embarrassment. "Toe-curlingly portentous," squirmed Ceri Radford in The Daily Telegraph. "Euurrggh," hawked The Guardian's critic Sam Wollaston, acknowledging that he is "no scholar of English literary criticism".

Myself I don't see what scholarship has to do with it. There the film was on our television screens. There were characters speaking with great feeling, and sometimes in the deepest distress, lines at once articulate and baffled, ransacking their own natures to plumb the source of their sorrows and dissatisfactions, searching language for meanings it would not quite yield.

For my own part I have never seen people speak lines like this on television before. For which – unless you think EastEnders is the model all television should follow – you do not complain, you get on your knees and give thanks. To Lawrence for writing them in the first place, to William Ivory the scriptwriter for brilliantly distilling them, to Miranda Bowen the director for revealing with great subtlety the depths from which such fractured language springs, and to BBC4 for having the courage.

Where does the idea originate that literature should not embarrass us? That people must speak as the dullest people we know routinely speak? That the moment a writer has an idea beyond the common he is open to our ridicule? And that whoever thinks that sex is urgent is a fool? In scene after scene, the sisters' growing pains were given flesh, now in an encounter of excruciating misunderstanding, now in shame, now in tragic numbness, now in irradiated passion. To be embarrassedly superior to these scenes is to confess one's own blankness before the trials of love, and to call them libidinous is to miss the meaning and intention of them entirely.

Were I the director I would sue the critics for gross misrepresentation. Janet Street-Porter, and she was not alone, said she didn't find it erotic. Where did she get the idea from that she was meant to? Lawrence hated titillation, would not have had the slightest ambition to excite Janet Street-Porter, and the film was true to his reserve. It speaks ill of the national intelligence that we cannot see sex treated in art without supposing that unless it has aroused us it has failed.

The characters shed their clothes in this production not to whip us into erotic frenzy but because sex as an expression of love is the subject of the work. Had it been food we would have seen them eat a lot. But nor was this sex shaken from its context of society and family. I will not forget the ageing Anna Brangwen exposing her body in icy desperation to the husband whose desire for her has lost its fire. Nor the scene in which Will Brangwen swims with his daughter. The intensity of the passion which is fatherhood, at least for Brangwen, was exquisitely evoked, as a force in itself, and as an emotion which will have lasting consequences.

So shame on those who rejected this marvellous adaptation without looking at it, who jeered their usual jeer, and who thought to pass off the cheapest of sexual taunts – "You don't turn me on, Lawrence!" – as criticism. There is only one word for it. Philistinism. No, two words. Stupidity being the other.



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